Sunday, August 21, 2011

Introduction to South Africa, Afrika Borwa

We flew to Washington and stayed at a Holiday Inn where PC did some training.  Susan and I arrived on July 5 and other PCTs arrived until noon on the 6th. We learned that we would be SA24, the 24th group to go to South Africa. There were 60 invited, three dropped out before coming to Washington.

Our training was largely a summary of PC policies and a brief overview of the training we would receive in SA.  We did several “ice breaker” activities that introduced us to the other PCTs.  I thought I would be the oldest person there and I may be, but one man and one woman, not a couple, might be older. Susan and I make one of three couples in our SA24 group. Beside my rival for “most experienced male”, there are two women approximately our age, a man about 50, several in their 30’s and the remaining PCTs are in their 20’s with the majority recent college graduates.  Quite a few of them only graduated this spring.

On Thursday we flew to Atlanta and caught a Delta flight to O.R. Tambo International Airport between Johannesburg and Pretoria. It was a long flight, 15 ½ hours, and everyone was excited with the anticipation of being in SA.  The PCT’s ranged from those who had never been out of the USA before to some very well-traveled young people. We arrived at Tambo, went easily through customs, and were met at the gate by the Country Director and a number of her staff.  We loaded our luggage into the luggage bays on the bus and into a pickup and attached trailer as there was more luggage than the bus could carry.  PC was well prepared for this.

We took about a three hour ride to a small college outside of Rustenburg. The college was not in session and thus there were dorm rooms available. They put all the married couples together in one building in single rooms. All buildings had bathrooms with showers down the hall. We arrived at Rustenburg about 10:00 pm.  We were greeted by the “Language and Culture Facilitators”, LCFs, who sang to us as we disembarked. It was African style music with a lead singer who started and sang each verse as the others picked up the same. Several of the singers had professional quality voices and we were to be treated to many songs through the training. It was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.  We then had welcoming, introductions, and these were followed by a late supper. We carried our luggage to our rooms and slept until 6:00 am.  We were warned not to take very long showers as there were only about 35 gallon hot water heaters.  The showers were to be one of our last luxuries.

Breakfast the next day was at 7:00 followed by classes and immunizations.  Immunizations continued from time to time for the next month and a half. Some days we received two shots. If something can be caught in SA and if there is an immunization, we have had it. I think microbes now flee as we walk down the street. 
Classes were about Peace Corps Policy and Languages.  There are 11 official languages in SA. SA24 will be placed in areas that speak Setswana, Sepedi, Xitsonga, Tshivenda and Afrikaans.  We all learned greetings in each of these languages.  I should say we all studied those greetings.  Later we learned which language each of us would concentrate on and most of us seem to have forgotten the greetings in the other languages. We did learn the pronunciation of the greetings and I feel that I could get it back quickly should I need it.
A word about greetings and culture: In the U.S., time is important. In SA, relationships are important. In the rural areas we will be in, it is important to greet each person one encounters. This is to be done even if it makes you late for work or a meeting. Almost all of us have had one or more persons say, “Why did you not speak to me?” It’s about relationships here.  Why this is so becomes understandable when one realizes how dependent one can be on neighbors and friends in a rural community. If your water supply fails, you get water from your neighbor.  The same goes for food, medicine, travel, and help in any emergency.

We stayed at the college for four days and then moved to another town where we were quartered in local residents’ homes.  Classes then were at a mixture of local schools, in each other’s houses, or, for general sessions, at a closed college.  We take mini buses or Kumbis when the distance is more than a mile or two. A taxi is a 14 passenger van [I was in one where there were 19 of us in the 14 passenger Kumbi. I was crowded but happy for the ride.]  These vans travel the paved roads in appropriate hours and pick up all along their routes. A local ride is 6 Rand, R6.00.  A half hour ride to the mall, about 15 miles is R11.00 each way. The rand has varied against the dollar since we have been here from R6.78 to R7.24 to a dollar.
Next: training

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Process, I

Of course the Peace Corps has a web site,  I found it quickly and read everything I could without beginning the process. PC has an Atlanta office. I called and asked some questions. We found out that the Atlanta office would have a table at a career day at Georgia State University where Susan and I had both worked. We went to that and over the next few months we went to several talks by Atlanta PC staff members and returned volunteers. We read more and decided we would apply.  We began the Process in December, 2009. We laughed when we read that most people complete the application in 3 weeks. The online forms are lengthy, there are references to contact, medical history to gather, documents, legal and other, to obtain. The website helps keep track of what is complete and what needs further work.  After four weeks, we had both completed our forms  and we each pressed the submit button.  A few weeks later we went to the Atlanta Peace Corps office for an interview.

We then heard nothing until March 8 when we were nominated for an education program in Africa.  We expected to have some additional questions for our medical history and we got quite a few.  We had to prove that we had had various childhood diseases such as mumps and chickenpox.  Old Dr. Bane who treated me for all those childhood ailments had died in about 1957.  It was thus back to my doctor for "titers" a method of examining blood for antibodies which proves that the patient has had the disease.  The big problem was adequately documenting my heart ablation.  I had had occasional rapid heartbeats for as long as I could remember.  In the late 80's or early 90's a procedure became available the fix my problem.  The doctor inserts a catheter through the groin, up into the heart and, in my case through an interior wall or two of the heart until the "bad pathway" on the heart is reached. Then high frequency electrical waves burn out the bad pathway. I had the procedure performed in 2008.  In over 98% of the cases, and mine in particular, this procedure is successful.  So, I was cured of the occasional rapid heartbeat. PC wanted all the details.  It took months to get this and other items documented. My doctors and their staffs were most helpful, but a clerk at the hospital where some records were kept was either lazy or incompetent.  Finally both Susan and I had completed all the medical items and we were medically cleared in December of 2010.  Susan then developed a symptom-less thyroid condition and that set us back again.  Peace Corps wants volunteers to "3 months stable" on any medication.  In March of 2011, we were placed in an education program in South Africa.   

I formed a Facebook group, Peace Corps South Africa July 2011 - 13. Other Peace Corps Volunteers, PCVs, began to find the group. Susan became an expert at searching for other PCVs and about 45 had joined when we left for staging. As I finish up this second post, it is the second day of staging. We announced the group at staging and invited the remaining PCVs to join the Facebook group.  If no one drops out there should be 57 of us on the plane to South Africa this  evening. 

The Facebook group has been very helpful. In addition to the PCVs going to SA with us, about 15 current volunteers joined the group. Those current volunteers were a great source of information. 

One of the best helps for me from the group happened on Friday of the July 4th weekend before staging.  At 8:00 p.m. that evening our email went down for a system upgrade until Tuesday morning, the day we left for staging.  PC had emailed several reminder notes and some forms we needed. Those became locked up and unavailable in the email system.  I went to the Facebook group and asked that someone send the emails.  Within a few minutes I had two copies of everything we needed.

My next post will be about staging, the two days of orientation we are having in Washington D.C. If I don't get to it today, it may not happen until September.  We will not have our computers during pre service training, PST.  PST will be 8 weeks of language, specialty, and safety training.  We will live with a host family who speak the language we will be learning.  We hear it is an intense time.  

Saturday, April 30, 2011

First Post -- Why join the Peace Corps

This is my first post to this blog.  Susan has found that many of the blogs she has read start strong with many posts, drop to almost no posts during staging, and then pick back up after staging. There is also the song that says, "You kept a diary for 4 weeks, but what the heck, you tried."  I suspect that one of these will happen to me although I will not post daily even at the beginning.

Tomorrow will be May 1, 2011.  It was about two years ago today that I said to Susan, "Are we ever going to join the Peace Corps?"  It turned out that we were.  We depart on July 5.

We had talked about joining the Peace Corps for years.  A friend of Susan's father and his wife had joined when they retired. We had said then that joining the PC was something we could do after retiring. After our initial discussion Susan assigned me the task of finding out how to join. After a little investigation, we read about the PC on the PC website, we went to recruiting sessions, and we talked to friends who were in the PC in the early days. Finally in December of 2009, we began to fill out the online application. We laughed when we read that most people complete the process in about three weeks.  Then we took four weeks to complete our applications. I had been retired for four years and my bosses had also retired.  I had to find them (some were on vacation) and get permission to use them as references.We had to find various documents and we had to write two essays one about why we would like to join the Peace Corps.  Here is part of that essay:

I wanted to be a peace corps volunteer in the 60's when the Peace Corps was created. My father's businesses had gone bankrupt in 1959. I graduated from high school in 1962, from college in 1965, married and went to graduate school in 1966, finished graduate school in 1970 with two children and then had a third. There was also the Vietnamese war to consider. So, family, finances, and education never seemed to be right for joining the Peace Corps. In retirement, I have the time, the health, and a spouse who is also eager to join. Why? First answer is that it just seems like something I have always wanted to do. I feel that I have been very fortunate in life and this is an opportunity to give something to the U.S and to the world. Those two are the major reasons. I could add that it will be an adventure, that I like to see other cultures, but those are my secondary reasons. It is something I have wanted to do for so long that it doesn't seem to need justification.

A set of experiences that makes me want to join the Peace Corps is grounded in my early teenage years. The draft was still ongoing in the 50's. I saw many older teenagers get drafted and go into one of the services. I would see them again in a few months and it was always impressive. They went off sloppy and came back strong and straight. I always thought I would go into one of the services, but it was the midst of the Vietnam War when I graduated from college in August of 1965. On July 4th of that year I took my Turkish roommate home with me and my parents had a July 4th cookout with several families as guests. Three men who had been in WW II each said, “This [Vietnam] is something different. It's not the same as when we went. If you can avoid it, don't go.“ Those were veterans saying that. One had a purple heart. I ended up teaching which was draft exempt. Student deferments, three children and, ultimately, a high number in the draft lottery kept me out of the service. I have always felt that I have an obligation to my country and the Peace Corps is one way to fulfill it.

Since I am retired, there is no problem preparing my professional life for the 27 months of Peace Corps service. As for my personal life, we have a home that we will lease for that time. Two friends who were Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960's have offered to oversee any maintenance and leasing problems (Our friends are excited and happy for our volunteering.) Bills, services, subscriptions, etc will be arranged before we leave. There should be little to nothing left to attend to after we leave. The most difficult thing will be leaving our grandsons, John, 8, and Peter, 5.  My wife's grandmother traveled when my wife was young. Her travel was an inspiration for my wife. Perhaps our Peace Corps time will be an inspiration to our grandchildren. We will correspond with them and keep them aware of what we are doing.

I believe I could be most useful teaching, however I will be happy to do any assignment. I have 40 years of teaching experience. There is an old question among educators, “Do you have 40 years experience or one year 40 times?” I suspect that there are some overlapping years in my experience, but I taught at three universities and one school system. I worked with teachers and other professionals from dozens of school systems. I think my experiences can be valuable and I want to contribute. If it is some area other than teaching, I will be happy there as well.

We now have a third grandchild, Rosemary, 7 months, so that part is even harder. We are still eager to go.